In defence of the postdoc

Feb 12 2010 Published by under Uncategorized

Over the past month or so there has been a lot of talk about postdocs, whether it's why people do them, the purpose of them or why some think they suck. In my field there is pretty much no getting around doing a postdoc if you want to do the whole TT thing, and frankly, I think that's a good thing. No matter how much you think you know about research and being a PI by the end of your PhD, the time as a postdoc is valuable in learning how much you really don't know. On top of that, being a postdoc should be one of the most exciting research times of your career.

The biggest complaints I hear about postdocing are 1) Money, 2) moving around and 3) lack of independence.

Money. This may be unpopular, but if you are in this business to get rich you might as well leave now. Yeah, PDFs typically make $35K - $50K, depending on the field and that isn't a ton of money given the training they have had to that point, but get over it. You're being paid to do research, and in most cases, have no other distractions. Assuming you have picked a research topic you enjoy, this is a pretty good deal. Personally, I would seriously consider the pay cut to be doing just research at this stage.

Moving around. Yup, the academic lifestyle can be somewhat nomadic and that can put a strain of relationships and make for difficult logistics. Because of that, a lot of people try and limit their geographic search, sometimes unreasonably. Personally, I would (and did) take the opposite approach and look for a postdoc in a completely unfamiliar place where you might never chose to settle. Why? Because a postdoc can be a lot more than just a job experience. I have numerous friends who are doing postdocs all over the world and the happiest of them are the ones that chose a place totally different from what they were used to. Maybe this wouldn't work in all fields, but there are plenty of excellent labs in other countries and you would be amazed how helpful international experience can be for collaborations. Not to mention that being in an unfamiliar place encourages one to go out and explore. Getting out of the lab for fun can be a good thing.

Lack of independence. Now I know that lots of people get into situations where they feel taken advantage of or where they are stuck doing projects they don't care about. That is why it is critical to do your homework ahead of time and know enough about the supervisor whose lab you are joining to determine if you can work with them and get the mentoring you need. Don't just take a position in any lab doing something remotely close to what you like. Talk to other trainees in the lab! Talk to former trainees. Is the lab a good place to develop as a scientist? That information can be FAR more important than the project. Put yourself in a place to succeed.

Obviously, this isn't a fool proof way to a happy postdoc, but give yourself the best shot you can. Expand you research horizons with something different from your PhD and do it in a fun place, both socially and scientifically. A postdoc can be one of the best times of your career.

32 responses so far

  • chall says:

    ahh...the joys of choosing a post doc place. I did exactly that though, moving to a place I didn't think I wanted to live in for long but wanted to try it out (and that the research place was awesome). I ended up staying after my post doc 😉 (let's just go with that some family members aren't too happy about that, alas that's life though?)I agree to a point about the money. I never had much of an issue of "how little/much I made as a post doc" However, I was very happy and think it should be "obligatory" to have health insurance, some vacation & sick days and retirement in there. those are things I want more than a high salary.My beef with the post doc? That some PIs so obviously talked to me as I was a "lesser" and that the uncertainty of employment got to my mind after a while. I guess that might be ever so present in Academia and I might as well learn that as a post doc?I think doing a post doc is a very good thing. I thought I was fairly independent from my grad days, and I was, but it was slightly more "up to me" as a post doc and more importantly; other people recognise that I have worked more independently now after the post doc than before...[I guess this means I drank the cool aid? 😉 ]

  • Odyssey says:

    I also postdocced in a foreign country. That was over twenty years ago and I'm still here (although no longer a postdoc of course!). I think people who dislike the idea of doing a postdoc are really missing the point. In the biomedical sciences at least, you are in no way ready for a faculty position straight out of grad school. Yes, I know that's how is used to work, but things are very, very different now and you need more training. That's just the way it is.And I agree, doing a postdoc should be enjoyable.

  • Alyssa says:

    I totally agree that, at least in most scientific fields, one is not ready to become a TT prof right out of a PhD. One of my favorite pieces of advice (I guess it's not really advice, but whatever) is: you learn the science during your PhD, but you learn how to be a scientist during your post-doc.I'll have to disagree with the moving around part - I think that one is more of a personal preference. Yes, I chose to stay in the same town as my husband, but that doesn't make the experience any less useful or meaningful to me. Of course, I was lucky to find a position in an area of research I've always been interested in pursuing with a very well-respected PI. So, it's not like I really settled either.Great advice overall, PLS!

  • Massimo says:

    I completely agree with all this. I think another very good reason for taking a postdoc is that it gives an opportunity to outsiders, or those coming from schools that are not prominently ranked, to show that they are just as good as their competitors with a pedigree. If departments hired people straight out of graduate school outsiders would not stand a chance.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Alyssa, I didn't mean that staying in the same place is automatically bad thing, at all. My point was that often times the people who complain the most about having to do a postdoc limited themselves to unappealing options at the start.

  • chall says:

    I find it funny that I can't even spell kool aid 😉 clearly not my thing...

  • Anonymous says:

    If you are lucky enough to have the right family and financial situation, it could be lovely to spend time doing research in a new country, and the poor pay of a postdoc might not be a hardship.However, people who have geographic limitations or financial responsibilities due to a variety of obligations, such as caring for aging relatives or co-parenting children after a divorce, often have quite limited choices when deciding on a postdoc position or even a t-t position. They can't simply decide to expand the scope of their job search to include other countries and might not even be able to expand their search to include other metropolitan regions. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that people in these types of situations often get stuck in postdoc positions where they have a lack of independence, regardless of whether they have done their homework.It is a shame that some people have to choose between putting themselves "in a place to succeed", as you wrote, and honoring their other obligations. It is even more of a shame that people who are struggling through such tough choices in their lives are also made to feel as if they should just buck up and try to enjoy themselves.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Anon: Lots of people in many professions face choices regarding family and mobility, and they are tough choices. People sometimes have to put other things ahead of their careers, no matter what they do. It's life. I'm am not saying that this should never happen, because that's just stupid. All I'm saying is that being a postdoc should be something that people enjoy and there are many ways to make it a valuable experience. Many people seem to see it as a painful obligation or just another hoop to jump through, which I feel is a bad way to look at it.

  • Professor in Training says:

    I'm in the same situation and total agreement with Odyssey. I found my postdoc to be a great opportunity to meet new people in both my own and related fields and this put me in an excellent position for future collaborations. Even though you're in someone else's lab, this is the time for you to prove you've got the chops to be an independent scientist.

  • JaneB says:

    I also found my post-doc a great opportunity - and deliberately applied for distant locations BECAUSE at age 24 (UK system, OK?), childless, partnerless, with healthy parents, I knew this was a great opportunity to go somewhere really different. I loved my time there, some weeks I hated it, knowing it was for a fixed period of two years only made me make more of the opportunities and helped ride out the tough bits (I'm not naturally that adventurous a person. Being in a different culture and away from my friends and family was tough at times). Having 'international' experience helped my job hunt when I came back to my home geographic region. I wonder if one issue with the US system is that people post-doc at a later life-stage than some of us Europeans? Commitments are likely to be very different at age 30-35 than at age 25-30... especially for women who have the bulk of the disruption of being pregnant and having/feeding babies.

  • Anonymous says:

    "I wonder if one issue with the US system is that people post-doc at a later life-stage than some of us Europeans? Commitments are likely to be very different at age 30-35 than at age 25-30... "Yes, it is. Reading this blog post about how "fun" it should be to pack up and go anywhere in the world for your postdoc...sure when I was 24 I would have done that. But I wasn't a postdoc at 24, I was a postdoc at 31. I had commitments and family obligations and couldn't just decide to go spend 2 years in this country and 2 years in another country. the ideal postdoc experience is geared towards people with no strings attached, no obligations outside of their own career interests (or who can somehow suppress those other obligations). How many people beyond their late 20s are still like this? For many of us, it would be irresponsible. For those who put their lives on hold in order to remain without obligations, it often leads to personal dissatisfaction ultimately.

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    Anon, maybe that's your personal position but I don't know that you should project that on every potential postdoc everywhere. Besides, there are bitter bloggers who will do that for you. I am married and was married when I took a postdoc at 28 to my wife who already had a career and who agreed to move for the experience of living in a different place. Her work experience from Postdoc Country has turned out to be a good thing for her job in Employment City, just as my postdoc turned into a good thing for me. But my experience is hardly unusual. Many of my friends who do postdocs all over the world are married and several have kids. We had a child while I was postdoc and now we have a daughter with dual citizenship. It was a great experience for us and the point I made above was that the people I know who are the happiest with their postdoc experience are those who took the show on the road. It doesn't work for everyone but try doing an unofficial poll sometimes of your postdoc friends and see whether my assertion holds up... or you can just assume that everyone lives in your shoes. I find it humorous that the idea that a postdoc might be a fun or exciting time in one's career (yes, even with a family) has caused such a stir.

  • Anonymous says:

    Or another way to put it is that you spend the first part of your postdoc learning how to be a scientist and the second half of your postdoc learning how to beg for money to a sufficient standard that you salary-support more people than just yourself.-antipodean

  • Anonymous says:

    I see it is more common for postdocs who are married to also be able to move to other countries if they are male. It is still socially more acceptable for the wife to follow their husband for his career chocies, than the other way round. Your experience - being married, your wife moved to your Postdoc City, you had a child - is typical from what I see for those who do manage to do it. It is far less common and acceptable for it to be the other way round (female postdoc moving to other country for her career and husband tagging along happily.) So, Prof Like Substance, it seems that whether you admit it or not, you were in fact in the priviliged class for whom postdoctoral life is wonderful. I'm glad it worked out well for you, but I also hope you realize that your experience is not easily transferrable just by having an optimistic attitude so your admonishment of those who were not as fortunate as you, can be seen as off-base.

  • Anonymous says:

    by the way I'm not the same "anons" as before

  • Prof-like Substance says:

    OMG OMG! Someone thinks a postdoc should be a good experience! Everyone tell him how delusional he is, quickly, before people get the wrong idea.Seriously folks, get a grip. I fail to see how I'm admonishing anyone for not being mobile. I wrote an account of what I and many others have done that has turned out successfully. I'm not saying other approaches are wrong or will end badly, I am proving examples of what one can do to make their postdoc a good experience. I prefer this tact rather than telling everyone else how wrong they are doing everything.Socially acceptable or not, there is an element of give and take in any relationship where one or both people have careers that require them to be mobile. Does it make me "in the privileged class" for having a spouse who was willing to move with me? I am certainly privileged for having married her, but every move we have made has been a discussion based on what was best for our family. None of the above changes the fact that there are shitty supervisors and inept postdocs out there. I'm not here to claim otherwise and I have no doubt that plenty of postdocs are getting exploited out there. Does that mean there is no hope? Um, hardly. Since the loudest voices on the postdoc issue tend to be those who feel they have been take advantage of, I thought giving some air time to the other side of the coin might provide some balance and maybe even make people think about options they might not otherwise have considered, take from it what you will.

  • Girlpostdoc says:

    This advice is truly superficial and frankly misleading. Something happens to people when they get TT jobs, it's like a switch goes off in their head and they all of sudden have to become part of the clique. In doing so, they forget where they came from or what they witnessed. You, like many others have bought into a mythology that pervades not only science but the arts. The myth in the arts is that in order to produce a great work of art, one needs to suffer. Come on. There are plenty of cases where that is completely false. The same mythology is now being built up in the sciences by people like you. If you want the priviledge of being a "scientist", you need to be accept poverty and expect to be bullied. After 6 years, I have earned the RIGHT to be considered scientist. I don't know what you people in cell and molecular biology do during your degrees, but in Ecology and Evolution, as PhD students, we came up with the questions, designed the experiments, wrote scripts to analyze our data, and yes of course wrote the manuscripts. We even wrote grants to get money to do the research. All of these things are what scientists do. Thus, I am a fucking scientist.I don't expect to have both money and independence immediately. But fuck if I don't get my independence in a postdoc then pay me the big bucks and I'll do whatever the fuck I'm told to do. But I won't be paid a secretarial salary just so I can have the priviledge of being a fucking monkey. That's just bullshit.The second mistake you make is assuming that it is still training. It is not. As a postdoc, I am collaborating with my supervisor. I am training and teaching him, as much as he is training and teaching me. I come with expertise and the postdoc is a chance to exchange our expertise. Making the mental switch from student to collaborator is crucial. I believe that is what defines a successful postdoc.

  • Anonymous says:

    I am a recent PhD student and was looking for some advice. Thanks! I also found this post.

  • Anonymous says:

    My 2 postdocs (over 4 years) were tremendous times of learning and training. I chose a path outside the education from my Ph.D. and broadened my skills considerably. I had good mentors, projects, and colleagues and feel this time was essential even though I had designed my own experiments, funded them myself, etc, in Ecology.

  • tideliar says:

    What a bunch of whining BS. Get a grip postdoc-types. Pull your head out of your ass or remove the blinkers (delete as appropriate). Your agenda is blinding you to what PlS is trying to say/do here.You unhappy as postdocs. He gets it. I get it. Everyone fucking gets it. A postdoc can be shitty period where you're taken for granted. Or not. That does not change your mobility BTW. If you hate it that much, then quit. Move on. Change careers. Face it that academic science is fucking hard and shitty. You fight to get your PhD, then you fight for postdoc and then you get have a tiny chance of getting a faculty position and you fight for tenure and funding. Start swinging or get the hell off home plate. 99% of you are so busy fucking whining about how unfair it all is, that every time someone tries to say something about the issue you immediately start flailing about with your rancid arguments.If you're incapable of thinking about or examining this issue then nothing is ever going to change.My postdoc was shitty, really fucking shitty, so do you know what? Did I lurk around the internets waiting for someone to write about postdocing so could vindicate my feeble sense of self-worth by lambasting perfectly reasonable arguments? NO!...well, yes I did for bit. but then I realized how self-defeating this is and I did something about my situation. Quit your fucking whining and do something to improve your situation.

  • Anonymous says:

    I'm with Tideliar on this one. Except my postdoc has been awesome.Every fucking step up is work and once you get there it's more work. I deo ten times the work I did as a PhD student as an advanced postdoc. And my boss, who pulls in millions a year, does ten times more fucking work than I do. And I owe him my salary and career.Sack the fuck up and write some fucking papers and grants so you can get your own gig. Or, as Tideliar suggests, get out.

  • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    I loved my postdoc. I went in knowing that I definitely did not want to be a PI, though, which really helped me to relax and enjoy the ride! I also got lucky with a PI who allowed me a lot of independence, and (mostly) great lab mates. The pay (CAD35,000) felt fantastic in the first year compared to my grad student stipend (GBP8,000), but felt pretty damn small by the end... Still, though, I consider myself privileged to have been able to spend 3.5 years doing original research, getting experience that has been very beneficial in my subsequent career, and getting easy access to a Canadian work permit (which I eventually turned into permanent residence and then citizenship). And yes, the latter benefit is one of the reasons I decided to do a postdoc despite not wanting to be a PI!JaneB has an excellent point about the earlier age at which us Europeans start our postdocs. I was also 24 and single when I moved over here. Now that I'm married, I'm tied to Vancouver because my husband's job is not at all mobile (he has an excellent reputation as a carpenter in the local movie industry, and is very well known within his own union (people come up to us at social events to tell me how great he is, and co-ordinators request him by name), but he trained via an informal apprenticeship and has not one single qualification on paper). Luckily for me, I chose a postdoc in a place I knew I would love, and am more than happy to make my move permanent!

  • makita says:

    I personally absolutely love my postdoc. I've been at it for a year, and have one paper as first author, and two more as n-th auther (n>1). Although I was limited in my choice because of family issues (being married to a husband in a tt job, and with 3 kids, moving far away is virtually impossible, unless we're willing to totally rip the family apart). I don't get paid much, but I didn't expect to get a lot. I love what I do, it's perfect for doing research, publishing, without the pressures of having to graduate or applying for tenure. If it goes on like this, I want to be a postdoc forever!

  • Anonymous says:

    @TideliarI am a postdoc and I hate it. And I think you are being ridiculous and frankly insulting. The reason some folks disagreed with PlS is that he tried to make a postdoc sound like a good thing. When you spew infantilizing crap like PlS did, you are asking for it. In some ways, you are better than PlS. You are saying outright that its shitty and hard in science. There is some honesty to that. But when people like PlS, who stand to gain most from the existence of plebians, try to teach the plebians that being a plebian is fun, it is usually obvious that they have their own agenda. And why shouldn't they? But, I have mine and if I can see through his utter BS, there is no need to be pissed off.I hate being a postdoc. I repeat that. I know academic science is hard. It's hard, cruel, unfair and frankly disgusting. That's why it's my game. The obnoxious field of science attracts obnoxious characters like me. What's so bad about that? I live with the truth ...the truth being that postdocs suck. And when some liar like PlS tries to tell me otherwise, either with the obvious profit motive or to assuage his conscience by telling himself that his slaves are happy and lucky to be his slaves, I refuse to have any of it. Oh...and I am not depressed. I am all fired up. I am only 25 (and I have been a postdoc for a year and I got my PhD in the US system). Tell you what: I will visit your blog on Feb 27, 2011 .. a year from now and let you know that I have a tenure track position at an R1 University. And...if you happen to have spent less than 2 years on TT at this point, let me guarantee you that I will have tenure before you do. That's a challenge. You think you have achieved tremendous by getting a TT position, I will show you how its done (only better...faster and easier) Save your insults for "postdoc types".

  • Professor in Training says:

    Anon 8.14: you are generalizing that doing a postdoc is a bad thing because you've had a shitty experience yourself. And you're also asserting that academic is "hard, cruel, unfair and frankly disgusting" because of your own bad experience. PLS merely stated that postdoctoral training can be a time to really grow as a scientist and, for those that are able, a time to try living in a different city, state or country. There ARE good mentors out there and there ARE wonderful postdoc opportunities available. What do you plan to do with your own postdocs while you're busy achieving tenure before anyone else? I suggest that you take your bad experiences and make sure that the postdocs you mentor don't suffer like you have. Then maybe your postdocs will be singing the same tune as PLS, myself, and the other bloggers who said that they found their postdocs to be rewarding and enjoyable.

  • Anonymous says:

    i'm a postdoc (1st year), married, have a kid, moved to another country. and it's actually not that bad as i thought it would be. yes, the salary's not that good. but it's enough (well it probably wouldn't be if my wife didn't work). i can do _whatever_ i want and yet my boss always finds time to discuss. i know that i'll have to make another postdoc after this one before i hopefully get a position. but you know what, it all depends on ME. nobody else but ME. if i was a genius i would get a permanent position in one year. so all of you whining about how you can't get positions and hate being postdocs. suck it up. do better or leave.

  • Dr.Girlfriend says:

    "Assuming you have picked a research topic you enjoy, this is a pretty good deal. Personally, I would seriously consider the pay cut to be doing just research at this stage."1. Sure cranking out the publications is essential to anyone aspiring to a tenure-track position. However, those Science and Nature papers cannot be guaranteed, and a mediocre publication record needs to be balanced out with mentoring, teaching, and outreach experience. 2. How many postdocs can say NO to mentoring a PI's students AND expect him to write a glowing letter of recommendation?3. If it is such a great deal, why are you still considering it? What is stopping you actually quitting your current position and taking another postdoc???????????

  • tideliar says:

    What is stopping you actually quitting your current position and taking another postdoc???????????Zactly. I did 🙂

  • Anonymous says:

    Well, my postdoc sucked. Never got the money they told me (got exactly half of it) and never got to do the project I thought I was going to be doing. Instead they just kept me behind a computer doing simulations that any undergrad with a freshman course in programming could do.

  • Anonymous says:

    My postodoc experience reveled a fact that science has become a “dirty business” and it has become a common norm to treat postdocs as "slaves". Funding scenario has created a whole system of “postdoc slavery”, which is impossible to escape from.PI's in some of the top institutes use postdocs as labors to advance their own career without letting postdoc advance, making it a parasitic rather than symbiotic association. Postdocs hardly get to choose their own projects, PI's use postdoc's results to write their own grants leaving postdoc dry. After all this, it has become a common trend to replace a postdoc with 2+ years experience with a new post doc to save on salary. (These statements are based on true experiences of some of my fellow postdocs)International postdocs have additional sets of issues to deal with and are highly prone to discrimination. Chances of getting tenure track position after a postdoc are becoming rare. With increase in number of years of postdoc experience a very few non-academic jobs become available. If you really want to do a postdoc think why you want to do it, with whom and for how long? DON'T WASTE YOUR TIME if it is not required to get you where you want to go.

  • slim says:

    potdoc is has bad as human traficking. Some Pi will exploit you
    when you work for them and when you will want to be independent they will make sure that you will not compete... Especially some prominent us university. They have their group like drug lords. If they say something bad about you that group listen. Science in some field is not science but some dirty political environment. Stay away from science stick to a more classical work. Stay away from consultating position work for a compny that pays your salary and benifits.

  • slinky says:

    comments are moderared this is like the review process. free speach...Really.

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